The United States v. The Progressive 476 F. Supp 990 (W.D. Wis. 1979) case involved one of the few court decisions in American history that issued an injunction to prevent the publication of a story.

It spurred an ongoing legal debate regarding the proper balance between national security and the public’s right to know. The immediate issue raised in the case was the classification of information describing how to construct and detonate a hydrogen bomb (H-bomb).

Federal judge issues injunction preventing magazine from publishing article about how to make an H-bomb

In 1979 the U.S. government invoked the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to prevent the publication in The Progressive magazine of an article by freelance writer Howard Morland titled,“The H-Bomb Secret: To Know How Is to Ask Why.”

The editors claimed that the article would provide the public with the information essential to understanding current issues regarding the production and use of nuclear weapons. The government claimed that publication would reveal vital national secrets and assist others in constructing a fusion bomb. Morland asserted that all information had been taken from unclassified sources; the government responded that the article revealed restricted data.

U.S. district court judge Robert W. Warren issued a temporary restraining order on March 9, 1979, enjoining publication of the article and ordering an immediate hearing.

On March 26, Judge Warren issued a preliminary injunction based on his findings during the hearing. He recognized the importance of the prior restraint imposed by the injunction, noting, “A mistake in ruling against The Progressive will seriously infringe cherished First Amendment rights.”

Judge reasoned there was no "plausible reason" why the public needs to know details

Nevertheless, he drew the balance in favor of restriction, stating, “A mistake in ruling against the United States could pave the way for thermonuclear annihilation for us all.”

He could identify “no plausible reason why the public needs to know the technical details about hydrogen bomb construction to carry on an informed debate on this issue.” Judge Warren referenced the Atomic Energy Act, which designates that information relating to the design, manufacture, production, or utilization of atomic weapons is “born secret” — classified from conception — and therefore can be declassified only by the Department of Energy.

The Progressive appealed the restraining order.

After other newspapers publish H-bomb secret, government abandons effort

Howard Morland, who wrote the article about how to construct and detonate the H-bomb, shown here in a 2008 photo, CC BY 2.0)

The injunction sparked a series of classification decisions. The Progressive requested that Judge Warren lift the injunction; Judge Warren’s responding opinion was classified, and the defendants were denied permission to read it.

Physicists at the Argonne National Laboratory wrote to Senator John Glenn, identifying published sources of information revealing the secret of the H-bomb; the Department of Energy classified the letter, but seven newspapers subsequently published it. When a concerned citizen, Charles Hansen, disclosed the secret in a letter to Senator Charles Percy, one newspaper published the letter and several others threatened to do so.

Once the H-bomb secret was revealed, the government abandoned its efforts to restrain publication, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the preliminary injunction. The Progressive published Morland’s article in November 1979, but Judge Warren’s opinion continues to provide precedent for future judicial classification decisions.

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